Ten simple rules for writing well

Here's a little piece I wrote a few years back. I was thinking of building a business teaching business people how to write. I gave it up as a lost cause.

There are basic rules for all writing. Whether it's an email, a report, or even a work of fiction, there are a few simple pointers.

You will find these, or variants of them, in many books on how to write effectively. In this blog I have summarised them in ten simple rules.

1.     The most basic rule of writing – omit needless words

‘Omit needless words’. That is the primary advice from the most influential book on writing ever published, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. That book is strongly recommended.

Most writing is too wordy. Many words can be deleted. When I edit my own or other’s material, this is the first thing I look for. From Strunk & White:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

The business world in particular is full of meaningless words and phrases. The biggest offender in recent years is ‘going forward’, which is meant to convey motion and dynamism but has the opposite effect. It is meaningless – time moves in only one direction. Much writing is full of similarly meaningless or pointless words and phrases: ‘the fact that …’, ‘he is someone who …’, ‘frankly’, ‘there is no doubt that …’

You get the picture.


2.     Say what you mean – and mean what you say

It is amazing how many people are afraid of saying what they mean, especially in print. Little wonder so much communications is misunderstood. Whether the news is good or bad, say it.

One of the first rules new journalists are taught is that the opening sentence of a news story must state clearly what has happened. “David Bowie, one the most influential and best known musicians of his generation, has died of cancer at age 69.”

How often are you frustrated reading a magazine article or a memo from a colleague and wishing the writer would get to the point? I used to work with a man who started every email with the words ‘The purpose of this email is …’   Cumbersome, but effective.

You should also not use euphemisms: ‘passed away ‘ for died, ‘ethnic cleansing’ for genocide, ‘correctional facility’ for jail.

Say what you mean, and say it unambiguously.


3.     Use short words where possible

English has the largest vocabulary of any tongue, with more than twice as many words as other major world languages. This is a good and a bad thing – it puts more tools at our disposal, but it also makes it easier to pick the wrong ones.

The sheer size and diversity of English vocabulary comes largely from the fact that it is a mongrel language, a hybrid of Romance and Germanic, two of the major branches of the Indo-European family tree. The underlying structure of English grammar, and most of its everyday words, are of Germanic or Anglo-Saxon origin (the Angles and Saxons came from what is now northern Germany and Denmark). But because of the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and because many writers have borrowed extensively from French and other languages, thousands of other words have entered the language.

Most of these are of Latin, rather than Germanic, origin. They are usually longer, and are the hallmarks of what is sometimes called ‘flowery’ language. Their overuse can make the writer appear pompous or verbose.

Winston Churchill, the only person to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature for non-fiction, was a master of the rhetorical flourish. He spent hours on his speeches, and his words still reverberate today. He was very good at using short, sharp Anglo-Saxon words:

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

We are not trying win wars or Nobel Prizes with our prose, but we can still learn a lot from masters like Churchill.


4.     Write like you speak

Compare the way you talk with the way you speak – at least the way you speak with family and friends. Most of us speak informally in our everyday speech, and we should write that way too.

Varying degrees of formality are appropriate, but it should not be taken too far. It happens in speech, such as when we hear police on radio or TV talk about a ‘deceased male person’ rather than a dead man.

But many people seem to think that writing should be formal. It certainly should set the right tone, but it should not go too far. You see this a lot in signage. “Patrons are requested to refrain from drinking alcoholic beverages in the outdoor lounge area.” What is wrong with “No alcohol outside please?”

In most cases it is quite appropriate to adopt a conversational tone when you write. I have written many magazine articles based on a transcription of a recorded interview, and it is astonishing how different the spoken and written word are.

In speech we umm and we ahh, we repeat ourselves, and our sentence construction is often pretty convoluted. But it is fresh and usually direct. The spoken word generally maintains a spontaneity that the written word lacks. We should try to maintain that freshness when we write.


5.     Use the active voice – most of the time

You hear this one a lot. Often the advice is to always use the active voice. Compare “the company sacked a hundred workers” (active voice) with “a hundred workers were sacked by the company” (passive). Or even “a hundred workers were sacked”. The second example of the passive voice shows why it is often used – it is a way of deflecting responsibility, or of avoiding it altogether.

Good writing is almost always strong and direct. The active voice does this, the passive voice does not. But sometimes the passive voice works better – it just sounds right, or better conveys a meaning or a nuance. The trick is to use it sparingly, and not at all where the active voice makes more sense.


6.     Don’t use clichés or jargon or foreign words and phrases

Keep it simple. We speak English, not Latin or French. If you think is de rigeur to use bon mots, think again. Why use ‘100 tonnes per annum’ when ‘100 tonnes a year’ says the same thing, and in our native tongue?

And don’t use clichés. They are clichés because they are clichéd. They are stereotyped and tired and are a sign of lazy writing. Time will tell. Don’t play with fire. Beauty is only skin deep. Keep the faith. Clichés have their place – ‘they hold all the aces’ may often be the best way of describing an unfortunate situation – but use them sparingly. It’s when they creep in and you use them unconsciously and us a substitute for original thoughts that they become a problem.

And then there is jargon – specialised language used in a specialised field. Jargon has its place as a short-hand way of describing complex things between specialists, but it does not belong in writing for a wider audience. If you have to explain what a word means, it is the wrong word.


7.     Minimise punctuation – and use it correctly

I hate semicolons. They are the work of the devil. But I love commas – they can make a sentence sing.

Bad punctuation can destroy good writing. The best rule is to keep punctuation to a minimum. Every little symbol makes the sentence more untidy looking and harder to read, and detracts from the message. Colons and semicolons in particular slow down a sentence – but the dash (as used in this sentence) is useful.

And don’t put words in ‘inverted commas’. Either it is the right word, in which case they are not needed, or it is not the right word, in which case you should find the right one.

8.     Don’t try to be too clever

“Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

There are many variations on this sound advice, which is attributed to the great English writer Samuel Johnson. It means that if you think a phrase or sentence is very clever, then your audience will probably think you are trying to show off.

Good writing is not showy – it is not a display case for the writer’s brilliance. In the best writing the words themselves are unnoticeable, and do not get in the way of the message.


9.     Layout is important

You can write the best words and the clearest sentences, and your stuff can still be difficult to read if it is poorly laid out. It is not hard to make writing look good.

For most business writing, it is best to make paragraphs short and to leave a space between them. The modern style, which looks best, is not to indent paragraphs but start them on the left margin. And don’t put things in CAPITAL LETTERS – the words have no shape and are much more difficult to read.

Use wide margins and plenty of white space. In longer pieces like reports, have plenty of illustrations and headings. Dense text puts people off. Consider how something looks on the page before printing it out or hitting the send button. (This is not the case with short texting and instant messaging, where studies have shown a bit of untidiness is better, because it indicates spontaneity).


10.  Watch your spelling

There is no excuse for bad spelling. English is difficult, but in an era of spell checkers and online dictionaries it is not hard to get it right. If you don’t spell properly many of your readers will see that you don’t care or that you are ignorant – not attributes you wish to advertise. If you can’t be bothered spelling properly, what else don’t you care about?

There are a few common spelling mistakes from the confusion of similar sounding words that look particularly ugly and show a mental laziness that mere typos do not. Best examples are their vs they’re, your vs you’re and – the biggest offender - its vs it’s.

There is no way around this. Just get it right.

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